Sepals and Spores: GSMIT’s Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certificate Program, Plants Course

I can’t quite explain my want to become a certified naturalist. I do not intend to make a career of it. Rigorously studying flora and fauna might make me a better volunteer. It might even make me a more rounded and informed citizen of my community, nation and planet. All that sounds great but, really, I enjoy going all-in with like-minded, equally interested and engaged students. I simply love the academic experience and that feels like justification enough.

So, in May, I ponied-up the tuition for my first course in the Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certificate Program (SANCP) hosted by the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont (GSMIT).

The Program

Red-Sided Flat Millipede on the trail. Sadly, the SANCP curriculum includes no insects course.

The SANCP curriculum includes 7 core courses:

Core courses run from Friday evenings through Sunday afternoons and are scattered throughout the year from February to November. Students can take classes at their leisure and in any order that they see fit. One of my classmates for the 2017 Plants course had begun his naturalist journey in 2012 and was in no hurry to wrap things up. The Birds of the Smokies and Plants courses occur over the same weekend in May each year, meaning that students cannot complete the course in a single calendar year.

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Just Passing Through: One Outstanding Stop In Philadelphia, PA

While in Philadelphia, skip the cheese steak. The “authentic” Philly is a lie that locals tell unsuspecting tourists. Unless, of course, you appreciate dry-mouth induced by a stale-cardboard hoagie stuffed with slivers of sweat meat scavenged from some poor butcher’s garbage pale and soaked in gas-station-quality nacho cheese. Then, by all means, chug a bottle of Pepto and order that “authentic” cheese steak. If not, no worries. Philly has so much more to offer.

27481702523_2308b5c60a_kPhiladelphia is one of those iconic American cities that every star-spangled road tripper should experience. The Nation’s first capital, home of both Benjamin Franklin and Rocky Balboa, Philadelphia was founded by William Penn (founder of the whole-damn Province of Pennsylvania) in 1682. In a city that boasts and preserves its colonial roots and revolutionary significance, there’s just so much to do and see — the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Reading Terminal Market, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the UPenn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

But if you were just passing through — if you could only choose one thing to do in Philadelphia — you really should go to jail.

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A (Yankee) Bird-Nerd’s Dream: London’s Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

– From “London” by William Blake

A Garden in Hyde Park

Two centuries ago, William Blake lamented the systemic ails of a leviathan called London. This April, I visited that beast. Though I had a blast, I sympathize with Blake’s song of experience. So much of London is chartered and paved; so little is wild and green. As much should be expected of the cultural, political mecca that reached its height of influence by sending subjects abroad to colonize and “improve” foreign lands (i.e., plow it over and eradicate the natives).

Four days into the venture, I struck out in search of wilder-things in this concrete jungle.

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Back in the Backwoods: A Weekend in Panthertown Valley, Nantahala National Forest

“It was good to be back in the wilderness again, where everything seems at peace.” – Richard Proenneke

I guess I had a busy winter, which seems like a weak excuse for taking it easy. With birthdays and holidays, I always find it hard to escape during the off-season. I’ve been outside plenty but I haven’t found myself at peace on an empty trail in some months. Barky, Slob and I set out to remedy that injustice as March became April and winter became spring.


Our destination was a chunk of backcountry called Panthertown Valley in the eastern corridor of Nantahala National Forest. If you’ve never heard of Nantahala, you wouldn’t be faulted. It’s tucked in the far southwestern corner of North Carolina and has some flashy neighbors. To the southeast is Gorges State Park. Immediately south is Georgia’s Black Rock Mountains State Park and Chattahoochee National Forest. To the northeast rises NC’s Pisgah National Forest and Mount Mitchell State Park, the tallest temple of earth in the eastern United States. Immediately to the north stretches the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is God’s country.

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To Shit in the Woods: Theory and Practical Application


At long last, Barky has shat in the woods! Archivists take heed for History trembles, prostrate to the deeds of great adventurers. 

To put this momentous occasion into perspective, Barky has spent numerous multi-day excursions in the backcountry – trips that include lots of coffee and carb-heavy food. Yet, until April 2017, at the tender age of 30, Barky had never taken a shit of any kind in the woods.

It became a joke. I laughed for want to weep, watching Barky bolt to the nearest toilet as soon as we returned from the woods to our civil comforts. One Christmas, I gifted Barky a roll of toilet paper, an orange-plastic trowel, and a copy of Kathleen Meyer’s seminal masterpiece, How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art. Coincidentally, that was the very day that I met the woman whom Barky would wed. I am uncertain whether she found the gift humorous or thought that Barky should invest in new friends. Either way, we’re still friends and I feel that my encouragement has added experience to Barky’s life.

Shitting in the woods is a practical and perfectly human skill. Humans have popped backcountry squats for tens of thousands of years before indoor plumbing and the first flush toilet ushered our bumbling species into the modern-era. Pooping is a natural function of the natural world. I shit. Therefore, I am.

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Sit, Breathe, Read: An Open Commencement Address to the Class of 2017

Graduates of the Class of 2017, I am sorry. On behalf of humanity, I apologize for humanity. The sky is falling, the well has run dry, the end is nigh, and you have come too late to party at the emerald-goggled, cluster-fuck kegger that was the modern age. For that, for all of humanity’s irrevocable misdeeds, I apologize. Those who remain are left with one final task as our species slips from its autumnal years to wintry dementia and ultimately to darkness. We must sit and breathe and read.

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Bridging Cucumber Gap: A Smoky Mountains Thanksgiving

A simple kindness can have a profound impact.

White-capped, high water swelled the last creek crossing on Cucumber Gap Trail before the Little River Trail Junction. It had rained and then snowed all week. Now, the clouds cleared, a balmy 41˚F, and the snow began to melt on the sunny side of the Smoky Mountains. The day was Thanksgiving, 2013.

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Surrogate Wolves: We Must Kill Large Game or Else They Might Die Some Other Way!

I took my first deer at age 16. I had hunted duck and dove for years but I had never invested much thought in deer. My father and uncle reasoned that deer hunting would be a healthy enterprise for a boy who was prone to flatcaps and shell-and-leather chokers. (What? I was hip, just ask Hollister circa 2002.) Also, venison jerky is unspeakably tasty…

So, somewhere northwest of Dallas, Texas, I saddled-up in a blind — like those pre-fabricated sheds that you’ll see in any Home Depot parking lot. It was spray-painted “camo” and situated in a clearing engulfed by pine. I waited 30 minutes before a buck and a doe pranced out of the brambles to graze below a battery-powered corn dispenser that sprayed kernels twice a day, at sun-up and again an hour before sundown. I had my pick.

I chose the buck and steadied the bead just above and behind his shoulder. It dawned on me that I had never shot this rifle or (really) any rifle before. My experience with firearms did not extend much further than two hand-me-down shotguns, each nearly a century old. Would this rifle fire true? What were its quirks? My shotguns had many but this rifle felt weighty and expensive. It was my uncle’s and, knowing him, I surely wielded a finely tuned instrument. Still, I stalled and thought. The deer browsed long and unbothered. I tapped the plywood wall of the blind with the toe of my boot. No response from the deer. I kicked the wall, making a sound like a kettle drum. Still, no response. I shouted, “Hey!” I suppose that I felt obligated. I wanted to like this. My dad wanted me to like this. I closed my eyes and squeezed the trigger…

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Challenge: Look Up and Listen

Raven Rock State Park in central North Carolina is small but lively. Despite yesterday’s late start, I saw deer, warblers and sparrows, battling squirrels, and droves of human hikers with their canine best friends. Raven Rock Loop Trail (2.6 miles) with it’s many tributaries (Little Creek Loop Trail, 1.5mi; Fish Traps Trail, 0.5mi there/back; and Northington Ferry Trail, 0.9mi there/back) make for an easy morning’s stroll through the woods. These trails wander the beech and sycamore forest above the bluffs that fall to the lazy rapids of the Cape Fear River.

Raven Rock SP Map (source

Where the trail turns from the bluffs between Raven Rock and the Fish Traps Trail junction, I heard a distant hammering — unmistakably, a woodpecker. I stopped and listened. On the river side of the trail, two doe nervously spied me. Step-pause-step, they measured my threat. From deeper in the woods, two hairy woodpeckers — locked in aerial fisticuffs — flapped and flailed to a shortleaf pine. They paused and hopped around the tree’s trunk before engaging again and flapping to the next tree, jockeying for territory and foraging rights.

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Coyote Song and Our Dwindling Right to Roam

A wooded stretch of happiness juts into Lake Martin, a reservoir in a region once called Cherokee Bluffs, outside Dadeville, Alabama. Two campsites, one in a clearing for groups and another secluded in a tight stand of pine, were a loosely kept secret among my friends — passed down between generations of Auburn students — upon which we bestowed the cryptic moniker “The Dadeville Spot.” We’d park our cars at the end of a dirt road beside a four-foot mound of gravel, intended (I suppose) to keep four-wheel-drive pickups and SUVs off another dirt road, uneven and pocked with potholes, that led to the campsites. The secluded and clearing campsites, each marked by a simple stone campfire ring, sat roughly 1 mile and 1.25 miles along the road.

The mound was not imposing enough to keep ATVs and dirt bikes off the road, much less campers on foot. Nor did that mound exist when we were first entrusted with the secret of The Dadeville Spot. Then, it was a dumpsite of empty Natty Light cans, crinkled and blackened by campfires. Mounds of torn and brimming garbage bags spilled all manner of tailgate-party refuse across the campsites and into the lake. Mercifully, the mound went up and the pickups never returned. The bubbas with their pizza boxes and cases of crappy beer could not be bothered to abandon their trucks and hike a mile. For that, I’m grateful. Only the respectful (or, at least, the somewhat determined and experienced) campers remained. Situated below rocky bluffs on a side of the lake that was generally void of aquatic vegetation and fish, we could spend the entire weekend at The Dadeville Spot and not see or hear another human, aside from the occasional clueless fisherman casting into dead water.

The Dadeville Spot became our quiet escape near the university and among yipping, howling things. Coyotes don’t seem much to mind canned, artificial wilder-places like Lake Martin. Their numbers are healthy, and like raccoons and opossums, they have done well in and around human settlement.

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